|Richard Clem at the O.J. Smith farm, site of a U.S. Army hospital.|
|Cropped enlargement of Alexander Gardner image of the O.J. Smith farm hospital in fall 1862.|
(Library of Congress)
On a beautiful fall day in 1991, my friend Richard Clem—the "Babe Ruth of Storytellers"—unearthed a brass identification disc on the O.J. Smith farm, a U.S. Army hospital site in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. The rare find turned into an obsession for Clem, a longtime Washington County (Md.) resident who has unearthed three other soldier ID discs.
2018 video: Richard Clem talks about O.J. Smith farm.
He had many friends in his Regt. I saw the Chaplain that was with him in his last hours, and he said that it might be of consolation to his friends to know that he lived with a hope in Christ and was resigned to his fate. As a soldier, there was none better. He was always ready and willing. He had some personal property by him at the time of his death, a Testament, money and a diary, besides the things he had in his knapsack. They are at your disposal.
The Smith farm disc belonged to 2nd Vermont Corporal William Secor, a color bearer and the only soldier in his regiment to die at Antietam. Dog tags weren't carried by Civil War soldiers; instead, some soldiers bought discs from sutlers on which they had their names and units stamped. No soldier wanted to be forgotten if he fell in battle or from disease. Letters, diaries, photographs and "tags" often aided burial crews in the identification of soldier remains.
For his 2006 Washington Times story on Secor, Clem—a retired woodworker—dived into National Archives records and tracked down descendants. He discovered this condolence note sent from a 2nd Vermont officer to Secor's stepfather:
Camp near Hagerstown, Md
Sept. 28th 1862
It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of Corporal William Secor, Co. A. Vt. Vols. He was wounded in the battle of Antietam on the 17th and died on the 18th day of September. He was buried on the Smith farm near Sharpsburg. At the time he was wounded he was carrying the Colors of his Regt. Which position he had occupied for some time.
|Morning at O.J. Smith farm, site of U.S. Army hospital.|
Most Respt. E.O. Cole, 2nd Lieut.
In October 2021, Clem, John Davidson (JWD Relic Recovery on Facebook) and I returned to the site of this remarkable disc discovery. Steps from where we stood in the farm field, Alexander Gardner set up his bulky camera in fall 1862 for an image of the Smith farm hospital. When sunlight hit this field just right, Clem told me about relic hunts here, he spotted glass glittering in the field—the remains of medicine bottles from the long-ago hospital.